Moderator: What do you mean by that? They were still fighting well into the war, weren’t they?
RADM Gaumon: Well, yes and no. There were just so many targets that got hit that first day, mostly the same types of things we went for in Desert Storm actually. Air search radars, runways, and above all command and control. You know people always make a big deal about the fact the top five people in the Taiwanese line of succession were killed in the first hour, and don’t get me wrong that was huge. Frankly though, the mid-grade officers, the regional command posts, those were the targets that put PLA in a situation that would just keep getting easier and easier, in the air at least. When we started giving the Taiwanese a hand we frequently struggled to find anyone to pass the information to. They talked a big game before the war about their defense infrastructure functioning without a head, and that was probably true with regards to Taipei. The regional and local commands though, losing those was huge. They had one functioning regional headquarters on the second day of war and to make it even worse, those they lost weren’t simply questions of blown out antenna and comms lines, they were lost with all hands, blown up or buried alive. That was decades of military experience, training, and education, gone in an hour. It’s not that others didn’t step up after that first day, but those early losses showed for the rest of the conflict.
Moderator: And then came the amphibious assault?
RADM Gaumon: They built up to it but yes. They had plenty of shaping to do before the surge across the strait, but the proper crossing followed pretty soon after the initial salvos. Between the air raids, the mop-up missile strikes and the handful of special operations attacks, life was hell for the ROC as they watched shipping concentrate at Xiamen and Fuzhou. They knew it was coming, they just couldn’t do much but put their subs in the way and hope they got shots off.
The coastal missile batteries were even worse off. They had been dodging air raids for the first few days and while most of them were still intact, the PLAAF owned the skies. With the area air defenses going down to the constant raids and the fighters on the run, the Chinese could keep UAVs up over the coast pretty regularly. The missile batteries that stayed got hit, and those that headed north where the attacks were a little lighter took themselves right out of the fight. Then, the day before the cross-strait invasion kicked off, the PLAN managed to land a brigade of marines at Hualien and seize the airbase there and that was about it for the ROCAF.
Moderator: Well, until the F-35 sale went through in the Senate right?
RADM Gaumon: Ok, so I’m retired right? There are things no one in government is going to acknowledge that I can, and this is one of them. From the moment the first F-35B touched down on Taiwanese soil, the air war was an American affair. The American people weren’t ready to go to war over Taiwan but the President, the House, the Senate, State, DoD, literally no one was willing to let Taiwan go without bloodying the PRC’s nose. We were obligated by law to ensure Taiwan could defend itself, right? “Defense articles?” “Defense services?” I hear people talking about “the rogue admirals” as if it was us that started this damn war! We followed the law as our commander in chief understood it and as senior lawmakers understood it! I won’t name names but I had people on the Hill literally read me the text of the Taiwan Relations Act over the phone “to make sure we are all on the same page here.” People who, I might add, I see on the news today talking about this “rogue admiral” bullshit!
Moderator: Would you say you feel betrayed?
RADM Gaumon: I’d say I… You know what, I think I’m done talking about the domestic scene. I keep going and I’ll end up saying something I’ll regret.
Moderator: I… Ok sure, let’s turn back to Taiwan then. What did you mean a second ago about the air war being an American affair?
RADM Gaumon: Thank you. Well… as I was saying earlier, the ROCAF was kind of in shambles at that point. Half the major bases in the south had been hit so hard and so frequently that for all intents and purposes they no longer existed. The cream of the air force had been trapped by cratered runways at Hualien when the mainland’s marines took that base and the remaining fighters were dispersed at a mix of airfields and runway strips in the north of the country. The real issue though… actually let me take that back. Everything was an issue. Leadership was hectic to say the least, fuel and ammunition were haphazard, you’re outnumbered by an order of magnitude, not a pretty picture right? What we really brought into the fight, without fighting of course, was coordination and a common operating picture. Even before the first batch of F-35s came over our E-2s were basically running the air battle. The Taiwanese had had all of their Hawkeyes at Hualien when it went down so pretty quickly the coordination role fell to us. We never shot at the Chinese mind you, but the Taiwanese went from maybe 20 minutes of warning before a raid to two hours and with a proper AWACS, their air-to-air losses fell off pretty quickly as well.
It got even easier when the 35s got there because they could shoot without ever going active and we could get the missile to terminal homing with only the E-2 radiating. Not only did this keep the 35s hidden but it meant the poor J-10 or J-11 pilots didn’t know they were targeted until they were practically dead. And that’s not even the craziest stuff we were doing back then. With the 35s you could get places you could never get an F-16 or a Mirage. There were a couple times where we’d sneak the Taiwanese pilots around the PLAAF Combat Air Patrols to the tankers or AEW birds. There was this one time we forced an entire brigade of J-10s to ditch in the strait after the 35s we were directing killed the primary and secondary tanker groups that were supposed to get them home.
Honestly it was kind of a thrill. No one and I mean no one knew what a proper, modern, no-holds-barred war would look like and here it was, right in front of us and we were at the center of it. Sure, the 35s we gave to the ROCAF had Taiwanese pilots in them but pretty quickly people learned that you either listen to the American E-2 or you eat a PL-15 before your second combat sortie. They needed us, but there was respect there too. The ROCAF started calling our AEW guys the “Talking Tigers” a few days in and our guys loved it. I think we had just got in patches with the new tiger logo for VAW 115 the morning the PLA snapped. Crazy thing is, that afternoon as I was swimming for the nearest life raft a little clump of the damn things came up right in front of me. Fucking poetic right?
Moderator: It sounds like you were really making headaches for the PRC in those days.
RADM Gaumon: That’s a bit of an understatement. Neither us nor the PRC wanted a full-on war, but it got pretty bad. Our electronic warfare people barely slept for those weeks as they went toe-to-toe with the PLA every single day. The things I was just telling you, getting the tankers and all that? Those were our good days. There were a couple times where things got so bad, whether it was EW, cyber, or whatever that we had to switch on the cruisers’ radars to have any idea what was happening in the air.
And then of course there was the fun little ambiguity of whether a particular aircraft was American or Taiwanese. We were never really willing to transmit and let them know, better to make their lives a little harder. For a while it wasn’t a huge issue. If it was flying over Taiwan or over the strait it belonged to the Republic of China. If it wasn’t it was probably American. Once we started operating around the island though, we needed fighters to escort our E-2s and tankers which complicated things somewhat, and then it got even worse when the F-35s arrived.
Not only were they hard to see, but now both us and Taiwan had the same platform in the sky and as we had to get more and more creative with routes for our Taiwanese friends we started bringing US and Taiwanese platforms closer and closer together. At first, they just stopped shooting at anything they weren’t sure of. Then they started shooting at everything.